Almost exactly two years ago, actor, perpetual student, artist, writer and all-around Renaissance man James Franco unleashed a fury with his exhibition New Film Stills at blue-chip Pace Gallery by recreating Cindy Sherman’s iconic Pictures Generation exploration of femme fatales and gender performativity. What’s that, dearest Filthy Dreams readers? You tried hard to repress those images? Well, I did too until art critic and social media provocateur Jerry Saltz resurrected their memory in a cover story interview with their maker–James Franco–in this week’s New York Magazine.
Billed as “the celebrity makes a case for his art before his critic,” the Saltz/Franco showdown apparently lasted four hours–an exhausting length reflected in the article. Perhaps because of the extent of the interview, which likely has most Internet readers, who prefer to digest their information in cat meme format, scratching their heads, some of the more appalling comments in the conversation–surprisingly from Saltz more than Franco–regarding identity politics, policing and who has the privilege to give or receive criticism seem to be overlooked by readers and critics alike.
Well, not this one. If you haven’t noticed, faithful readers, it has been awhile since we’ve had a good Filthy Dreams rant. So breathe in a paper bag and let’s get to ranting.
In “Can The Art World Take James Franco Seriously?” it appears that James Franco is more upset about his art being criticized than the content of the criticism. Assuming the art world dislikes his work solely due to his celebrity, Franco asks Saltz, “But there is a prejudice against me, right?”
And sure, on some level, Franco is right. The art world, like academia or any other professional world with strict gatekeepers, alternately adores and abhors celebrity. Unfortunately for Franco, the problems with his New Film Stills certainly did not derive entirely from his celeb status, but his privilege–the same privilege that motivated Franco to ask Saltz why his wife Roberta Smith didn’t praise Franco’s film career in her New York Times art review.
As most of you know, I was one of the critics of Franco’s New Film Stills–a critique that went viral thanks to gossip site Oh No They Didn’t, which I formerly read when Britney was still bald and I knew who most of the starlets were. How retro!
Before I go any further into my rant, I think we need to rewind and review the issues surrounding Franco’s film stills as I saw them in my initial article “James Franc-OH NO!: The Privilege of James Franco’s ‘New Film Stills’.” Calling Franco’s exhibition “an exercise in male privilege,” I declared that James Franco revealed, “the power of particularly straight white cisgender men to co-opt any type of queer or feminist subversive act.”
Employing drag and feminism as fun props rather than transgressive tools for societal critique, Franco’s exhibition, as I observed, “further cements his own masculinity within an appropriated image of femininity. Focusing on his beard, his large, hairy man-feet and women’s shoes that are too small for him, Franco continually asserts his own masculine identity. He’ll use drag and Sherman’s feminine stereotypes but not appear too femme as to throw his own identity into question. He’ll do it just enough to get the accolades and the gallery exhibition.”
I concluded, “As Franco’s art undeniably depicts, nothing cannot be usurped by dominant culture and the privileged.”
Yes, I know, burn. I was certainly not the only critic finding deep issues in Franco’s photographs–Ben Sutton at Artnet, Roberta Smith and Saltz himself penned equally biting critiques of Franco’s Pace show.
Revisiting Saltz’s review of Franco’s exhibition, Saltz’s main issue lies not in Franco’s co-optation of feminist tactics, but Pace Gallery’s admittedly questionable decision to show them at all. As Saltz explained in “At This Point, George W. Bush Is Actually A Better Artist Than James Franco,” “With ‘New Film Stills,’ Pace has backed itself into a corner with no credible way out. The gallery can either say We’re publicity whores and want long lines to see bad gewgaws by a celebrity. Or it can say We love this art. Neither is a defensible position.”
This distinction is essential to understanding Saltz’s interview with Franco, which makes clear that Saltz not only does not fully comprehend the feminist critiques of Franco’s work, but he outright dismisses them as a symptom of our politically correct, policing culture.
Calling Franco an “outsider artist”–a choice which I would love to see explained further considering Franco’s numerous MFAs, Saltz responds to Franco’s query about the reactions to his Cindy Sherman appropriation, saying:
“Let me answer your questions. One, had you, say, riffed on Jeff Koons–an artist people love to hate–it might’ve been different. Successful male artists are easy to hate–the art world loves devouring itself. When I as a straight man say anything about women, I have a lot of trouble. And with Cindy, you walked right into the very heart of feminism.
But had your show not been at a megagallery, had it not been at Pace…I wonder if it might’ve been different at White Columns or Gavin Brown. Those guys, with their credibility, saying, ‘Hey, fuck you, man. I like this guy, his film stills.'”
First, yes, it would have been different if Franco “riffed” on any other artist because that would be a completely different piece of art that would have to be analyzed accordingly. I don’t think successful male artists are any easier to hate than women–look just at the frequently dismissive responses to Marina Abramovic.
I also don’t think that the location of Franco’s work matters to its critical understanding. At least for me, I could care less where an artwork is shown whether at Pace or in a tiny gallery in Bushwick. The content of the work remains no matter what wall you hang it on.
Nevertheless, the true trouble with Saltz’s comments lies in the sentences, “When I as a straight man say anything about women, I have a lot of trouble. And with Cindy, you walked right into the very heart of feminism.” Something about Saltz’s tone reminds me of the frequent misrepresentation of feminism as a bunch of angry, bra-burning, lesbian farm commune-forming feminazis. I could be wrong since I am not reading all the comments on Saltz’s writing, but I highly doubt all these criticisms are unwarranted. What exactly are you saying to garner these responses from women? What is your role in this?
Later in the interview, Saltz raises the questions surrounding Franco’s sexuality and his declaration that he is gay in his art. As Saltz continues:
“Nobody says, well, I wonder who Cindy Sherman is with. Boys? Girls? Everyone? So, yes, you were in the middle of the Cindy Sherman film stills. Perhaps, had you been a gay woman, it might not have made the art world as crazy. That is the policing period we seem to live in. Which brings us to social media. I’m big in my teeny world. You’re big in a bigger world. Are you still on Instagram or not?”
Whoa, whoa whoa…slow down…could you please let James Franco respond to the policing comment?
Again, of course, if James Franco were a gay woman, his New Film Stills would have been different. That seems self-explanatory to me. The body of a gay woman rather than the body of a man performing these female archetypes presents an entirely separate and distinct context from the work Franco created. I find it unbelievable that one of the top art critics appears not to get the significance of identity to artwork, particularly self-portraits.
But let’s get to the real heart of this thing, what exactly is this “policing period”? This is certainly not the first time Saltz has bemoaned art world policing in his writing in New York Magazine. In an article on November 17, 2014, Saltz attacked the increasing conservatism he found in the art world, largely aimed at his own critics that have accused him of sexism and racism in both his columns and his social media presence. Now, I just want to make clear, I do not think Saltz is either a sexist or a racist. I do respect the rights of people to question and to force Saltz to question what and how he discusses race, gender or sexuality.
Pointing to examples where his output has been “policed” including tweeting David Zwirner had “a brown problem” during their Oscar Murillo exhibition or posting a photo of a woman’s thrashed behind that she posted herself, Saltz opines, “Flexibility is life, but lately I keep thinking that the art world has gotten a lot less flexible, and the freedom that I’ve always thought of as completely foundational–freedom to let our freak flags fly and express ourselves, even bizarrely–has constricted considerably. And it’s happening at such mutated and extreme rates that we must ask if the art world is not now one of the more self-policing areas of contemporary culture.”
In another column on March 6, 2015, focusing on Facebook’s banning of Saltz due to his posting of hilariously pervy Medieval imagery, Saltz similarly writes, “Apparently, over the last bunch of months, I’d run afoul of art-world conservatism and moralism and been demonized by artists, whose names I recognize from social media–people policing my borders.”
Much like Republicans and other actual conservatives’ complaints that their freedoms are being restricted by not being able to post their discriminatory views or characters on Mad Men’s inability to deal with the newfound rights of women and people of color in the workplace, Saltz–and Franco for that matter–seem to misunderstand what exactly freedom means in this context. You are free to write, make, say, feel whatever you’d like, but that does not mean you are free from criticism.
I am certainly not one of those policing critics. I am a fan of and will advocate for the right of any creative person–whether comic, artist, writer, etc–to offend people. Please make jokes, write about and make art about rape, sex, gender, race, politics and anything else taboo. I agree with Doug Stanhope’s line that “If you’re offended by any word of any language, it’s probably because your parents weren’t fit to raise a child.” Yet, this does not mean that your output is free from criticism. The problem with being at the cutting edge of these topics is you have to be good at it. If you’re a comedian, your rape joke better be funny. If you’re an artist, your work has to be quality, which is where James Franco ran afoul. His film stills…just aren’t that good.
In the end, the interview comes off as two privileged white men completely unable to engage with the content of criticism rather than just react with horror at the criticism itself. Please tell me how either of their careers have suffered due to his “policing period.”
When I called James Franco’s work “an exercise in male privilege,” I was mistaken–it had nothing on this interview. Why couldn’t New York Magazine have James Franco speak to one of his feminist critics? In addition to what is said, you also have to look at who receives space in these major publications. Who is allowed to have the cover story? Maybe women, people of color, queers and other marginalized people have to turn to the comments section or small WordPress blogs to voice their opinions because they don’t get the opportunities in weekly columns or cover story interviews. Name a regular woman art critic columnist for New York Magazine…precisely.
Saltz’s quick dismissal of the substance of the writing by Franco’s critics as solely “policing” almost dangerously brushes off the voices of those–like me–who I believe had valid points to make about Franco’s work. It perhaps inadvertently invalidates my ideas and the ideas of other critics.
Finally, I find the interview a complete missed opportunity for both Franco and Saltz. Why can’t we hear Franco discuss the actual content of the criticism? I would have asked Franco exactly why he chose to insert himself into the Untitled Film Stills. Was it just a tribute to Cindy Sherman? Or was he trying to say something else about his performance of identity? What were his motivations to make that work? I believe there is still a possibility for a reparative view of the New Film Stills and I wish I would have heard it.